Oh, the joy (of cooking, that is)

I came around to the joy of cooking a little late. Here is the much-abridged sum of my mother’s early tutelage: ground beef browning, “fried” chicken baking, cups of flour leveling, brown sugar packing. But devoted as I was to Cheetos and to sneaking the sugary goodness from the Jell-O packets in the very back of the very high cupboard, food preparation and all it entailed (the recipe hunting, the shopping, the cleaning afterward) seemed absolutely fruitless. It would have been somewhere in the 80’s that I declared — if only to myself — my disdain for all things domestic, cooking included. Unless it got me and fellow slumber party attendees late-night cookie dough with M&M’s and someone’s training bra ended up in the freezer, the kitchen was no place for me.

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But a few married years into regular dinners coming from a box, from powdered something-or-other out of a foil-lined, direction-laden pouch, I decided to attempt the use of ingredients that could perish in four days, rather than in so many years. Early results were varied. My rotini with fontina, Parmesan and peas was a creamy, buttery hit. The peanut butter-laced noodle and carrot bowl from my impulse-buy vegetarian cookbook, however, was a spit-it-out grimace inducer.

I had to learn to cook. From standpoints both economic and body-conscious, I could no longer duck out to a restaurant last minute every time I wanted something other than toast, something decently representative of more than a single lonely food group and the odd condiment. Plus, I was growing more dissatisfied with the typical restaurant offerings. I’d had a kid, and with that somehow came a desire to know the very details of what my plate contained. I couldn’t shirk knowing exactly what was going into my baby daughter’s ever-hungry mouth, either, a more or less vital part of the maternal responsibility.

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And so, I started simply, having subscribed to a couple of cooking magazines, having cracked the few cookbooks I received as wedding gifts. There was some clumsy chopping, some overly enthusiastic simmering, some under-salting and over-peppering, along with some grossly errant substituting. But the realization that I could actually take a list of edible items and put them together to yield combinations of flavors and textures was dawning.

There was happiness in this, what I had perceived to be among the most mundane of activities. There was not just the satisfaction at the point of fork-to-mouth, not just the contented end to tummy rumblings. There was joy to be had in transformations: in steaming broccoli to shiny green; in the crunch of an onion while chopping, then sautéing it to translucent tenderness; in swirling together the previously independent entities of oil and vinegar, mustard and honey.

I was on my way.

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